– By Dean Andrew Scrimgeour
As I write this column, the much-anticipated Kean Reading Room & Gallery in the Rose Library is nearing completion. Like a fashion model about to make her entrance on the runway pausing to put on her necklace and earrings, the grand space awaits a few final touches—redupholstered chairs for the study tables and the installation of the second-half of the dramatic 65-foot mural that depicts Mead Hall and the New Jersey State Capitol Building during the antebellum period. Already the room is a daily destination for me—a place of serenity and beauty, a place to reflect and regain perspective if only for a few minutes, a place evoking
the spirit of an admired leader, a place invoking our highest ideals of scholarship and service. The Rose Library has at last regained interior elegance to complement the grace of its neoclassical exterior.
Librarians can point to a proud history of providing edifying spaces for reading and research in their buildings. The reading rooms of the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library hold iconic status as stately rooms in those palaces of learning. And Andrew Carnegie used his vast fortune to ensure that hundreds of U.S. cities, large and small, could house their libraries in buildings as dignified and commanding as the pillared banks on Main Street.
I was in the sixth grade when I discovered the uplifting spaces of a Carnegie library. My social studies teacher gave me the assignment of a class presentation on the topography of Puerto Rico. I needed to make a detailed map of the main island and headed to a familiar haunt, the children’s department in the basement of the main public library in downtown Boise, Idaho. The atlases there were not equal to the task, so I was given permission to go upstairs to the
adult collections that resided in the vaulted splendor of that Carnegie edifice, a place reserved for high school students and adults.
Before I made my ascent, I was given a solemn introduction to the etiquette that had to be observed upstairs. As I was escorted up the stairwell to the privileged chambers, I felt as though a sacrament or a hallowed secret was about to be given.
A librarian gave me a seat in an alcove lined with books below a stained glass window and brought me the oversized volume that I needed. The room seemed almost sacred. No pipe organ was heard. No choirs. No liturgies. Only pens scratching paper and people walking softly on
the marbled floors. But a sense that it was Sunday morning in those chambers was nonetheless overwhelming.
Because of that sense of awe and the abundance of information in the atlas, I traced the map slowly and made my notes with unusual care, even writing with unaccustomed neatness. I wanted to postpone my return to the lower level as long as possible.
Winston Churchill famously captured my memorable experience: “First we make our buildings, and then they make us.” The alchemy of inspirational space had worked its magic on me.
We are already hearing a steady stream of praise for the beauty of the Kean Reading Room & Gallery. Now I look forward to the muted sounds of students using the room for their work—the tapping of keyboards, the rustling of pages. I will be delighted but not surprised to hear about their memorable experiences, testimonies that resonate with my own in the Carnegie library of my youth.
— This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Visions, the Library Newsletter